The Big Read Blog (Archive)

When a reader falls in love with a book

July 4, 2007
Washington, DC

"You have a legacy of choice, and they say choice is the only true freedom."
-- from The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick

It's Independence Day. I woke this morning thinking of my father, an Air Force pilot who, despite his gruff exterior, could be a real kid at heart. This was his favorite holiday. When I was growing up, we spent every Fourth of July at our lake cabin. My father drove our boat in circles under the hot July sun so my friends could learn to water ski. At night, he pulled a crumpled paper bag of bottle rockets and Roman candles out of his closet, gave us a lecture on safety, then sat on the patio between my mother and a can of OFF hoping to keep the mosquitoes at bay long enough to watch our amateur fireworks show.

Cynthia Ozick. Photo by Nancy Crampton

The second thing I thought about this morning was Cynthia Ozick. Last week she was kind enough to join the staff of the Arts Endowment via teleconference for a discussion of her book, The Shawl. Ozick's voice is soft and crystalline, the kind of voice that brings to mind both dictionaries and mountain streams because each crisp word is selected with care then pronounced with flowing precision. She is kind and generous, brilliant and funny.

In The Shawl, Rosa Lublin watches a guard in a Polish concentration camp murder her fifteen-month-old daughter. More than thirty years later, Rosa is living in Miami but is unable to move past the horror and brutality of the Holocaust. Ozick's writing has been called "fierce" and "concentrated" and, while I won't disagree that it is both of these, it is far more than that. For me, reading the seventy pages of this book is like watching a display of mental fireworks that rivals the Fourth of July celebration I'll attend later tonight in D. C.

Ozick understands the power of words. She uses metaphor and symbolism with magical control. She thinks of metaphor as "the mind's opposable thumb" and says, "Without the metaphor of memory and history, we cannot imagine the life of the Other. We cannot imagine what it is to be someone else. Metaphor is the reciprocal agent, the universalizing force: it makes possible the power to envision the stranger's heart."

The two powerful stories that comprise the book each won the O. Henry Prize, "The Shawl" in 1981 and "Rosa" in 1984. My colleagues asked Ozick about her writing method. She is not a "draft writer." Instead, she spends hours perfecting each sentence before going on to the next. I love the idea of Ozick turning words against the sharp lathe of her mind until the rough edges are shorn away. [A confession: I've been trying her technique as I write this blog but have failed; fragments of ideas are already constructed below. I'm a draft writer, a draft horse that has to pull an idea out of a forest of confusion until it can reach the clearings of my mind.]

Ozick believes the deliberate extermination of more than six million European Jews during the Holocaust is a "black hole" in the history of humanity, a time without light or redemption, and she expresses discomfort with any attempt to fictionalize it -- even her own. Yet she concedes that witnessing these events, even in fictional form, can change us. "We can't put a ladle into history and re-stir it to make the ingredients and the bad taste of it come out different," she says, "That we cannot do. But we can certainly change ourselves by opening ourselves to the pain and grief of others."

The same evening of the NEA's teleconference with Ozick, I led the discussion for the first-ever book club meeting in my condo building. Selecting a title for a group discussion can be tricky. Of course it's important for the book to be well written, have good character development, a solid plot structure -- all of those ?technical' criteria we use to judge literature because we can't put a label on what makes a piece of writing transcend the page. In my opinion, the best conversations are generated when the ideals expressed in a book address the human condition, the commonality of mankind's experience on this earth.

My neighbors discussed The Shawl for more than two hours. As they talked, Rosa became corporeal, a real presence in the room. She wasn't just a character in a novel they read because their neighbor is a book-geek that works on the Big Read. Rosa breathed. She gave birth. She suffered at the hands of humans not unlike us. It was one of those beautiful moments where I was blessed to experience again why literature matters.

In April 2005, in an Op-Ed piece for the L.A. Times, Salman Rushdie wrote, "One may read and like or admire or respect a book and yet remain entirely unchanged by its contents, but love gets under one's guard and shakes things up, for such is its sneaky nature. When a reader falls in love with a book, it leaves its essence inside him, like radioactive fallout in an arable field, and after that there are certain crops that will no longer grow in him, while other, stranger, more fantastic growths may occasionally be produced."

I love The Shawl. Beginning in January 2008, Big Read communities across the nation will have the chance to love it too.